More Language Awareness!

Part of the reason I love using Twitter in my professional life is coming across newly published articles that might not make it onto my radar otherwise. This article by Veronika Koller (@VeronikaKoller), Language awareness and Language Workers, showed up on my feed the other day, and it’s a very interesting read.

Her argument is that language awareness–“an enhanced consciousness of and sensitivity to the forms and functions of language”–and skills should be more widespread among language workers.  Language workers are those who  produce language as the primary goal of their work, such as communications professional, copywriters, translators and interpreters, journalists, branding professionals, etc. Language awareness in general can “[increase] the quality of language work” while critical language awareness, which acknowledges the role of societal power and privilege and the role of language in creating and maintaining structures of power and privilege, can in addition have “empowering consequences for customers, employees and other stakeholders”. However, in terms of how to raise levels of language awareness in language workers, she finds that communications textbooks don’t adequately do the trick, and there is currently a gap between applied linguists in academia and language workers in the business world in terms of teaching and learning.

I totally agree with this article! More (critical) language awareness in the population in general would be a great thing. There might be fewer ill-informed non-stories in the media about language, featuring non-experts blathering on about their linguistic preferences and passing them off as “rules”, or giving flimsy arguments that don’t hold linguistic water in defense of not wanting to keep up with language change . Maybe if more marketers were sensitive to sociolinguistics, they’d be less likely to launch embarrassing social media campaigns appropriating the language of social groups not their own. 

Increased language awareness in the general population would benefit us as language teachers as well. I have to spend time in the classroom dispelling myths and common beliefs about language, language varieties, language learning and language acquisition. I also do a lot of quashing of folk linguistic beliefs, standing up for of language varieties that don’t have an army and/or navy, and defending socially stigmatized language behaviour at parties and social events, come to think of it.

I agree that better communications textbooks and transmission of knowledge between academia and the business world would help, but I also think that linguistics education in high school or required courses or linguistic content in writing or language courses at the undergraduate level in all subject areas would be beneficial. The more (critical) language awareness, the better!

 

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Reading Activity: Refugees

Hat tip to my colleague Tony Rusinak, who posted this great poem on his social media today: Refugees, by Brian Bilsten.

REFUGEES

They have no need of our help
So do not tell me
These haggard faces could belong to you or me
Should life have dealt a different hand
We need to see them for who they really are
Chancers and scroungers
Layabouts and loungers
With bombs up their sleeves
Cut-throats and thieves
They are not
Welcome here
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
They cannot
Share our food
Share our homes
Share our countries
Instead let us
Build a wall to keep them out
It is not okay to say
These are people just like us
A place should only belong to those who are born there
Do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way

(now read from bottom to top)

Over and above the discussions that it would bring about on the topic of refugees, and the vocabulary work, this poem would make for a wonderful lesson.

  • You could print out two copies, one the way it’s written here, then another with the sentences in bottom-to-top order, and have students punctuate and adjust the capitalization on both, justifying their choices.
  • A follow up, once it were re-punctuated, would be to do some pronunciation work on thought groups, focus words and intonation. Then both versions could be read and compared not just in how the punctuation and capitalization differs, but also in how this affects aspects of pronunciation.
  • With more advanced groups, you could then try to have students write reverse poems. Or maybe palindrome poems.

Brian Bilsten has a ton of other fun and creative poetry on his website; I bet there’s lots more in there to use in the English classroom!

 

Language and the Immigrant Wage Gap

2012-02-20_042110_language_iconI recently came across this article in MacLean’s: “New figures show just how big Canada’s immigrant wage gap is“. It was the sub-heading that caught my attention: “Even many second-generation immigrants earn much less than native-born workers. How speaking English impacts wages.”

After describing and discussing trends in the gap in wages between first and second generation immigrants to Canada and those who have been in Canada for several generations, the author talks about the role of English language proficiency and this wage gap. More specifically, the author focuses on whether English is spoken at home, and how this plays a role in the wage gap:

The latest census data says the native-first generation immigrant wage gap is 16 per cent at the national level. Once we examine whether immigrants speak English at home, things change — the wage difference is just 5.8 per cent. But for first-generation immigrants who don’t speak English at home, the gap jumps to 27.3 per cent.
For second-generation immigrants, there is barely any gap for those who speak English at home (0.7 per cent) but it’s still a significant gap for those who don’t speak English at home (a whopping 45.7 per cent).
This pattern also holds in the major metropolitan centres in the English-speaking parts of the country, which attract the most immigrants.

This article is written by an economist; he is just taking the statistical data that’s out there and analyzing it in different ways and seeing what interesting findings emerge. (It seems like there were no linguists, language teachers, people that work with immigrants, etc. involved in this article.) But I find the article dangerously close to leaving readers with the conclusion that all immigrants should abandon their L1 if it doesn’t happen to be English, and speak English at home, in order to close the wag gap.

Now, the author does acknowledge that there isn’t a causal relationship between speaking English at home and earning higher wages:

Though these patterns are striking, they should not be interpreted as causal – immigrants can’t necessarily start speaking English at home and expect to see their future earnings increase. There are unobserved qualities of individuals that may correlate both with the tendency to speak English at home as well as with labour market earnings potential. Without holding these fixed in some way, we can’t say whether there is a causal relationship between English skills and the gap in labour market outcomes.

I definitely agree; this is far from a causal relationship. First, neither the data nor the article define whether when they say an immigrant family “speaks English at home” are they referring to families who have immigrated from other countries where English is the dominant language and/or speak English as a first language? Or are they referring to immigrants who may have a different L1 but choose to raise their children in only English? It seems very obvious to me that if you’re talking about immigrants who may have English as an L1 and have come from the US, the UK, Australia, Ireland, etc. the there could be a host of socioeconomic and cultural advantages they would have over immigrants from other places that may give them a leg up in the job market. These are the “unobserved qualities of individuals” that the author mentions.

The author goes on to speculate.

But supposing that the findings here are suggestive of a causal relationship, why does speaking English at home matter so much?

One obvious answer is that individuals who speak English at home speak better English in general — and this would mean better communication at work. […] Or perhaps individuals of foreign descent that speak English at home tend to have other important skills on average.

But another possibility is the labour market discriminates against individuals with weaker English skills even when English is not important for productivity.

The author makes some important connections between English proficiency, the workplace and language-based discrimination in the workplace. His third point–that the labour market discriminates against “weaker English skills”, accents, non-standard Englishes and varieties of English that are different from the local variety even when it’s not an important for productivity–is a particularly important one. Anecdotally, I see this all the time in both my broader workplace, as well as around the city, in society in general, and even in pop culture.

Yes, the link between language skills and the workplace is real and important. But rather than leave folks with the idea that they should abandon their L1 when they arrive in Canada, why don’t we provide more funding and resources for different linguistic support and development mechanisms, so that people who want to continue to improve their English proficiency, and reap the benefits that may make on their wages, can do so if they wish? Also, initiatives to change attitudes in society in general, making people more understanding and accepting of linguistic diversity and bi- and multilingualism would also more helpfully contribute to closing the wage gap, I think.

Reversing Deficit Discourses

Around this time of year, I tend to do different talks around the university for faculty, staff or teaching assistants about dealing with linguistically-diverse classes in terms of teaching and learning.

I’ll often begin these sessions by talking about what faculty, staff or TAs can do to help avoid the deficit discourses around international students and ESL/EAL students at our universities. It’s a matter of framing: international students are often characterized as lacking language or cultural skills, but I encourage folks to remember that international students are actually in the process of adding language varieties and cultural know-how to their repertoire.

Then I bring out my most cited of Bourdieu quotes–“academic language […] is no one’s mother tongue” (Bourdieu et al., 1994, p. 8)”–and remind everyone that all students are in the process of acquiring academic and English and the language of their discipline. Depending on their linguistic background, some students from non-English-speaking backgrounds just have a bit farther to travel than those raised and educated using English to add Canadian Academic English to their repertoire of languages.

None of this is particularly revolutionary, but it can be a bit of a reframing of things for folks who don’t spend all day thinking about language and working with people developing their English language proficiency. The monoglot ideology (Silverstein, 1996) is really prevalent in of English Canada: in general, English Canadians are really not very successful language learners, and tend to fall into the “everyone else can speak English so why should I learn anything else?” trap. Even in places with a lot of cultural diversity, a real embracing of linguistic diversity, valuing multi/plurilingualism, on behalf of the whole population –including monolingual English speakers, and not just those who happen to speak a non-English heritage language at home–doesn’t necessarily follow. The lack of linguistic diversity on the CBC is one example of this. 

 

Bourdieu, P., Passeron, J.-C., & Martin, M. D. S. (1994). Academic Discourse: Linguistic Misunderstanding and Professorial Power (1 edition). Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Silverstein M. (1996). Monoglot “standard” in America: Standardization and metaphors of linguistic hegemony. In D. Brenneis & R. Macaulay (eds.), The matrix of language: Contemporary linguistic anthropology, 284–306. Boulder, CO : Westview Press.

IPA for All

From Chat with the Clouds. Please add ESL/EAL/EAP textbooks to this list: Us: what do we want? Also us: mainstream IPA education Us: when do we want it? Also us: during high school so we can stop using those crappy pronunciation “guides” in dictionaries, textbooks, music and international studies all together: and use a real […]

They Won’t Know Unless You Tell Them

One of my least favourite genres of article is the Kids these days…!  or Back in my day, we…. article focusing specifically on university students. At a very regular frequency, these articles appear in the mainstream press and in publications focusing on academia alike. They invariably consist of a lot of hang-wringing because unlike the (usually Baby Boomer-age) authors of these articles, today’s university students are brainwashed capitalist zombies addicted to social media, who can’t spell or use grammar correctly, and are coddled snowflakes who can’t handle the real world without a trigger warning.

That’s why I loved this article, What First Years Might Not Know and What To Do About It. It’s short blog post listing academic behaviours–emailing, note-taking, interacting with professors–that many first-years lack upon arriving at university simply because they’ve never learned them. The post reminds faculty and staff that they may have to explicitly teach these behaviours. Your first-year students don’t know how to write a proper email? Rather than bemoan that this indicates that the decline of Western civilization, well, just teach them how to do it and get on with it.

And if students are not exposed to these academic behaviours in North American high schools and have to be taught, then what about students who are arriving to a completely new academic culture when they arrive at a Canadian university from another country? For me, this further underlines the need for academic expectations and behaviours to be made explicit and specifically taught to domestic and international students alike. Academic English is no one’s mother tongue, and similarly, no one is born knowing that you shouldn’t use emojis in an email to your prof. If you want someone to act in a certain way, well, then show and tell them what you want; otherwise, how are they supposed to know?

Friends don’t let friends use bad dictionaries

There comes a time in every EAP course, usually at the beginning, when you have to have THE TALK with your students–that awkward moment when you address the elephant in the room.

“That crap dictionary/translator you rely heavily upon is making you sound dumb.”

While a crappy bilingual dictionary or online translator can be sufficient for some beginning students, those who have reached intermediate level, and especially those heading into EAP, may be hindered by simplistic or inaccurate dictionaries.

And while dictionary skills are on the curriculum for some EAP courses, they sometimes still focus on paper dictionaries and/or don’t talk about dictionary choice and the limitations of a lot of the translation websites and apps many of our students end up using out of convenience. Many of our students don’t realize that the translator they use like a dictionary is probably machine-driven. For their routine lookups of words they’d be better off with dictionaries compiled by humans.

Below is a handout I prepared for my colleagues with some of my faves. Share yours with me in the comments (especially apps for iOS).

 


TEACHERS FRIENDS DON’T LET STUDENTS FRIENDS USE BAD DICTIONARIES

Encourage students to not just use Google or whatever random dictionary website/app they come across, but to choose a quality dictionary site or app that is associated with a published dictionary brand. This means it should be compiled by lexicographers (and not via an algorithm/crowd-sourcing).

Some recommendations:

English-English Dictionaries Online (Web-based)

Personal Fave: Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary

  • Learner-appropriate level, with simple definitions
  • Usage notes, collocations, etc.
  • Tabs on top of homepage have wordlists, and words groups by topic
  • Free online via web; paid app (see below)

Also:

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

Collins: English Dictionary, Thesaurus

 

Bilingual dictionaries Online (Free, web-based)

Many students use Google translate to translate single words. That tool is a powerful one, but I don’t find it very accurate for  single words. It mainly works based on algorithms and crowd-sourcing, and depends heavily on context, so it’s not as accurate as a “real” dictionary, especially for single words.

Collins Chinese , French, German, Italian, Spanish, , Hindi

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On collinsdictionary.com you can select the language pairing you want to the left of the search bar. 

Oxford Dictionaries Arabic (other languages are available, but by subscription only)

Cambridge Dictionaries: Chinese, Spanish, German, French, Indonesian, Arabic, Italian, Korean, Polish, Russian, Turkish, Catalan, Japanese, Malaysian, Portuguese, Thai, Vietnamese

Capture
Click on the box near the search button on dictionary.cambridge.com to access all the bilingual and semi-bilingual dictionaries.

 

Apps

A lot of the good dictionaries and learner’s dictionaries are only available as paid apps. Despite pointing out to your students that $30 for an app they may use every day of their academic career is a good investment, they may balk at paying for one.

Search for the following in the iTunes/Android app stores:

Paid English-English Dictionary Apps:

Both platforms (iOS and Android):

  • Cambridge Advanced Learner’s dictionary
  • Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary
  • Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

 

Free English-English Dictionary apps

Android:

  • Oxford Dictionary of English: Note this is not a learner’s dictionary, but the regular Oxford Dictionary
  • Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Note this is not a learner’s dictionary, but the regular M-W dictionary
  • Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus

Apple iOS:

Bilingual Dictionary Apps: Paid/Free/Free trial

Android:

  • Oxford dictionaries: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian Greek, Thai, (all free)
  • Collins dictionaries: Korean (free trial, ~$10), Arabic (free trial, ~$10), Japanese, German, Norwegian

Apple iOS:

  • Oxford Dictionaries: French, Spanish, German, Italian Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Greek
  • Cambridge Dictionaries: Chinese (paid)

 

 

NYT Writing Prompts

Capture I recently came across the New York Time’s list of 401 prompts for argumentative writing. This would come in handy in many an EAP classroom, where opinion or argumentative essays in various forms are taught at most levels, really. The topics and questions are such that most of them could form the prompt for an essay being written purely from a student’s own background knowledge, experience and opinions, or for a research essay drawing on external sources of information.

There is also a list of prompts for personal or narrative writing, along with a lesson called “From ‘Lives’ to ‘Modern Love’, Writing Personal Essays with Help from the New York Times”. It’s true that those two particular sections/columns in the NYT are particularly interesting and engaging; not to mention that there’s an archive with thousands of relatively short, easy-to-engage-with texts that could be mined for any number of uses in a writing class.

Also fun to use would be the daily picture prompt. This could be especially flexible for use with lower levels, or as a prompt for genres other than the essay, such as creative writing.

Video: How to Talk about Indigenous People in Canada

CaptureI recently came across a video by CBC News called How to Talk about Indigenous People in Canada, featuring Inuk journalist Ossie Michelin, that I think would be a great classroom resource for those teaching in Canada. It’s language-focused, explaining the levels of specificity of different terms related to indigenous peoples in Canada and some aspects of use. It’s also extremely clear, concise and explanatory, which ideal for those who might not have extensive background knowledge on indigenous peoples in Canada–such as newcomers to Canada or many Canadians of a white settler background whose schooling in this area may be lacking.

I’ve had several students over the years who have come to the classroom without the nuanced and complete linguistic repertoire needed to talk about complex and historically-rooted social issues such as identity, privilege, racism or colonialism. In some cases it seems apparent that they’ve only been exposed to or learned words and terms that reflect the systemic racism present in pop culture and mainstream society, but lack knowledge of the heavy social and historical baggage and power some of those words carry.

I consider it part of my duty as a language teacher to first get myself informed as to the more appropriate and socially just linguistic choices to make when talking about complex issues (and keep myself informed as society and language, evolve and change), and then to pass that knowledge on to my students.

BC TEAL is putting on a webinar entitled An Indigenous Strategy for the ESL Classroomwhich seems like it could be one example of initiatives being taken towards the reconciliation of the ESL/EAL world and the indigenous communities in Canada; a relationship which has been troubled in the past by things such as denials of racism in ELT coursebooks.

I would love it if you could share in the comments any other people, groups or institutions working on Indigenous-ELT reconciliation in Canada.

Teaching Idea: Phoneme Prevalence Chart

Capture

 I came across this fascinating chart on Twitter a few days ago of the prevalence of phonemes amongst the world’s languages. Though it could come off as intimidating for someone who doesn’t know IPA, I think that it could be interesting to draw upon in the classroom. It could spark conversation around the fact that some sounds that are common and fundamental in English might actually be rare cross-linguistically, and therefore difficult for some.  It could be a confidence booster for someone who is struggling with a certain sound to know that there is a reason why they find it difficult, and that they’re not the only one.

I think it could also be interesting to get students to think of the phonemic inventory of their L1 and think about overlap with English (though as this chart shows phonemic inventory and not phonetic, there could be sounds in English which also appear in students’ L1s which are not phonemes but exist in allophonic distribution). Here is an amazing resource on phonemic inventories of different languages (along with other cultural and linguistic info). Although these resources have been made for speech-language pathologists and audiologists, they could definitely prove handy for an English teacher focusing on pronunciation.